Are we paying the price for embracing America's last acceptable racist symbol?

The Curse of Chief Wahoo 

Are we paying the price for embracing America's last acceptable racist symbol?

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Many anti-Wahoo activists are loath to engage any evidence of Native support for symbols like Wahoo. Andy Baskin, a morning personality at 92.3 and sports director at Cleveland's NewsNet5, recently spoke on his radio show about visiting a reservation in the Southwest and seeing children wearing Chief Wahoo hats.

"There were African Americans who were OK with sitting on the back of the bus too," Farrar responds.

"No minority is a monolithic group," adds Higginbotham. "It's hard enough to assimilate without taking on these battles." (Baskin, incidentally, has concluded that the Wahoo tradition is not one worth holding on to.)

Ferris State's David Pilgrim points out that the U.S. Constitution provides for a Bill of Rights and an independent judiciary precisely because of the problems with leaving certain issues to majorities, expressing his frustration with this fundamental element of protest dynamics. "There's only so much energy for these things when you're a member of the oppressed race," he says. "The dominant culture has all the advantages. The force we're fighting doesn't have to do anything but the same thing that it's always been doing."

Which makes these issues especially easy for politicians to ignore. When reached for comment, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson's office vaguely referred to an "indirect" role played by the mayor in the controversy over Chief Wahoo.

"We recognize there is a debate," says Ken Silliman, Jackson's chief of staff. "Whatever role we've played indirectly, I'm not in a position to comment on. But we are aware of the discussions throughout the community on this issue. There are many different ways to participate in a community dialogue. Our community relations office has participated and has played a role."

"There is no dialogue with the mayor's office," counters Ferne Clements of Cleveland's Kamm's Corners neighborhood, a white woman who coordinates the annual Opening Day protest in Cleveland. "And there won't be until the rest of us join in speaking out against this thing."

***

If Cleveland sports fans can count on anything, it is this: For the duration of Chief Wahoo's tenure with the Indians in the post-Civil Rights era, the city's teams have unequivocally sucked. Not just the Indians, but all of the major professional teams, including the Browns and Cavaliers.

Without recounting all the grisly details here, it's enough to note that these beloved franchises have not just lost badly, but in the most embarrassing and excruciating ways. And not just games, but homegrown superstars and entire teams, which were stolen away by greed and greener pastures.

Those troubled by the persistence of Wahoo can take heart that, even if the powers-that-be are consistently unresponsive, the team's lack of fortune during the Chief's tenure fosters hope that at least one higher power is on their side.

Superstition has played a prominent role throughout sports lore, from Boston's finally vanquished "Curse of the Bambino" to the Chicago Cubs' ongoing "Curse of the Billy Goat," which legions of fans blame for a collective 150-plus years of star-crossed baseball. Is a "Curse of Chief Wahoo" beyond the realm of possibility?

Here on the banks of the Cuyahoga (Iroquois translation: "Crooked River"), in the state of Ohio ("It is beautiful"), perched on what was sacred ground to Native Americans for thousands of years, the populace clings to the only sports logo in the Western world that caricaturizes an entire race of people, even amid cries that it dehumanizes them and trivializes their plight.

"It certainly flies in the face of 'love your neighbor as you love yourself,'" says McMickle.

But even if one doesn't buy into the basic principle of "do unto others" that underpins every major world religion, or even the concept of karma, everybody likes a good ghost story. And what's happened with Cleveland's sports teams over Wahoo's tenure could fairly be viewed as some of the best evidence there is of some kind of benevolent metaphysical order.

"It was white people who made Wahoo," explains Clements, "so it's up to us to get rid of it."

But in the end, there might be just one white person who matters.

"I can't believe that one rich man could make this thing go away and chooses not to," says Marjorie Villafane. She's referring to the Indians' current owner, Larry Dolan.

Dolan spoke in some detail on Wahoo during a 2006 interview with Dan Hanson of greatlakesgeek.com, in which he strongly suggested that the logo isn't going anywhere soon. He was responding to questions about whether the advent of the script "I" that's become increasingly prevalent on Indians uniforms signals a gradual phasing out of Wahoo.

"It's not true," said Dolan. "It's another marketing tool."

It does seem the Indians could use some more tools in their belt: Though Major League Baseball closely guards its revenue figures, on its 2010 list of the top 10 clubs "based on sales of all licensed products," the Indians were nowhere to be found.

"Around the country, places we go, I come in contact with Indian groups particularly at Indian casinos, and ask them about it," Dolan told Hanson. "No, they just don't have the problem."

No word on whether he has conferred on the issue with Natives who aren't casino owners entertaining an extremely wealthy guest who also happens to own the baseball team that wears Chief Wahoo on its uniforms. Through a spokesman, Dolan declined to be interviewed for this story.

***

Look at page A3 of today's PD," Euclid's David Currie wrote in an e-mail the day after taking part in the Progressive Field protest.

He was referring to a full-color, half-page advertisement placed by the Indians to drum up excitement for the new season. It features a young white boy wearing a Wahoo cap and holding a sign over his head containing a drawing of the logo inscribed with the words "Be a Believer!"

As slogans go, it serves as an apt reminder: Since 1964, the Curse of Chief Wahoo has given a championship-starved city as much to believe in as the Indians, Browns, and Cavaliers have.

"How can you argue with a religious icon?" Currie says. "Wahoo isn't going anywhere."

Peter Pattakos is a Cleveland attorney and author of the website clevelandfrowns.com.

scene@clevescene.com

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